The Tragedy of Unreported Rapes

What is the Definition of a Rape?

According to the US Department of Justice rape is legally defined as: “an act of penile-vaginal intercourse by force and without consent. Penetration, however slight, is sufficient to complete the offense.” Understanding and accepting this broad definition of rape can help victims overcome myths about rape that may otherwise prevent them from acknowledging, reporting, and addressing their victimization. Unacknowledged rape victims suffer in silence and, often, crushing pain because they do not get the help that they may need.

What is an unacknowledged rape victim? Koss (1985) defined an unacknowledged rape victim as “a woman who has experienced a sexual assault that would legally qualify as rape but who does not conceptualize herself as a rape victim” (p. 195). Researchers found the percentages of rape victims who did not regard their experience as rape were 73% (Layman, Gidycz, and Lynn, 1996), 64% (Bondurant, 2001), and 48% (Kahn, Mathie, and Torgler, 1994).

Why would so many rape victims not consider their experience to be rape? The reasons are numerous and vary from person to person. Some women do not want to view themselves as “rape victims” because this label connotes powerlessness or stigmatization (Lamb, 1999). Some do not want to view the perpetrator – often an intimate partner – as a rapist. Others are influenced by rape myths that define rape narrowly or that blame the victim for rape.

Trisha Meili: was she at Fault?

On the evening of April 19, 1989, a young woman, out for her run in New York’s Central Park, was bludgeoned, raped, sodomized and beaten so savagely that doctors despaired for her life and a horrified nation cried out in pain and outrage. She ran five times a week to help handle the stress she had from working twelve-hour days at a prestigious investment banking firm. After fourteen years of withholding her identity to the public, Trisha Meili, came forth to share her story. She refused to be referred to as a victim. In fact, after she started healing from the brutal attacks she started running in the park again. People said she must be crazy for running at night and asked her why she ran alone. “That question bothers me a bit,” she said when interviewed. “The implication is, Okay it’s my fault that I was raped and beaten and almost killed?” (Couric, 2003)

Was it Trisha’s fault?

Rape Scripts and Rape Myths

A rape script is a schema about “the events that normally occur in a (rape) situation” (Kahn and Mathie, 2000, p. 383). Thus, a script is an individual’s impression of what typically occurs during a rape. According to the U.S. Department of Justice the most common rape myths are:

  1. Rape is a crime of passion.
  2. Women who are careful don’t get raped.
  3. Rape is impossible if the woman really resists.
  4. Women secretly want to be raped.
  5. The rapist is usually a stranger.
  6. If rape is imminent, the woman should really relax and enjoy it.
  7. Women “cry rape,” i.e. falsely claim to have been raped as a manipulative tactic.

Women are least likely to label their experience as rape if (a) they accept rape myths and (b) their experience corresponded to those rape myths. For the woman’s nonconsensual sexual experience to correspond to her rape myth, the rape myth must state that under circumstances like the ones she experienced, the incident is not really rape or the incident is the victim’s fault.

Was being raped Trisha’s fault considering that she ran after dark in Central Park? According to the legal definition, the answer is a definitive “no.” Trisha was a victim of a violent crime that included rape. Nonetheless, many women who are victims of similar crimes believe the myth that they carry the blame for being sexually assaulted, and therefore do not view it, or report it, as a rape.

Combating the Unacknowledged-Rape Epidemic

Consider the following statistics taken from the Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence against Women, Findings from the National Violence against Women Survey in November of 2000. 17.6% of women in the United States have survived a completed or attempted rape. Of these, 21.6% were younger than age 12 when they were first raped, and 32.4% were between the ages of 12 and 17. 64% of women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked since age 18 were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, or date. The FBI estimates that only 37% of all rapes are reported to the police. U.S. Justice Department statistics are even lower, with only 26% of all rapes or attempted rapes being reported to law enforcement officials.

How do we respond to these sobering statistics? First, we need to help the victims see their rapes more accurately by helping them process their own rape myths. Second, we need to help them understand that even though rape is primarily defined in sexual terms, it is not merely a sexual interaction. “Rape is much more than just the sex act because it is also committed in order to fulfill nonsexual needs related to power, anger, and aggression. Rape involves hostility (anger) and control (power) more than passion” (Groth, Nicholas, and Birnbaum, 1979). Anger and a desire to dominate and control the victim are the primary motivations of the rapist. These factors are consistent with the victim’s emotional experience of sexual violence and the victim’s feelings of being violated (Fortune and Marie, 1983).

As a therapist specializing in the treatment of young women, I’ve seen many rape victims go back to their assailants after they’ve been raped. Clinical psychologist, Veronique Valleire, says that “there are many reasons why victims re-engage offenders.” By re-establishing a relationship on her own terms, the victim may attempt to reclaim her sense of control and dignity. “Someone yanks that sense of control from you, and you need to get it back,” Valliere explains. “We work under the assumption that this must be something we can understand through talking it over.” It’s the classic female response to tackling a problem: let’s discuss it.

Hope for Victims

It seems to be very difficult for women to come forth about their rapes and once they do we, as health care professionals, need to treat every case with sensitivity. We need to help these women put myths aside and acknowledge what really happened. If we can succeed in helping a young woman acknowledge her rape, instead of supporting their denial that it was a rape, then the likelihood of healing increases and the likelihood of future rape(s) decreases. Although we can’t prevent these horrific acts from happening, parents, friends, and professionals can empower women with the truth.


  • Boundurant, B. (2001). University women’s acknowledgement of rape: Individual, situational, and social factors. Violence against Women, 7, 294-314.
  • Couric, The Central Park Jogger. (2003)
  • Felson, R.B. (2002). Violence and gender reexamined, Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association
  • Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women, Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, November, 2000
  • Fortune, Marie, Sexual Violence (1983) The Unmentionable Sin. New York: Pilgrim Press
  • Groth, Nicholas, and Birnbaum, Jean (1979) Men Who Rape, New York: Plenam Press.
  • Kahn, A. S Mathie, V.A., & Torgler, C. (1994). Rape scripts and rape acknowledgement. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18, 53-66.
  • Koss, M.P. (1985). The hidden rape victim: Personality, attitudinal, and situational characteristics. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 9, 193-212.
  • Koss, M.P. & Oros (1982). Sexual Experiences Survey: A research instrument investigating sexual aggression and victimization. Journal of Consulting and Clincial Psychology, 50, 455 – 457.
  • Lamb, S. (1999). Constructing the victim: Popular images and lasting labels. In S. Lamb (Ed.) New versions of victims: Feminists struggle with the concept (pp. 108-138). New York: New York University Press.
  • Peterson and Muehlenhard (2004). Was it Rape? The Function of Women’s Rape Myth Acceptance and Definitions of Sex in Labeling Their Own Experiences. Sex Roles Journal, Vol 51, (pp 129 – 144)
  • UCSC Rape Prevention Education (1999) and US Department of Justice (1994)